Embarrassment for Sarkozy as L'Oreal feud comes to court

By John Lichfield

Fabulous wealth; an iconic brand-name; a family divided; a supposedly dotty, octogenarian heiress; an allegedly predatory, celebrity photographer; secret tape recordings by a butler; a political scandal pointing to the pinnacle of the French state...

All the incendiary plot-lines of a great TV melodrama - Dallas-sur-Seine meets The West Wing of the Elysee - twisted around the L'Oreal family feud trial which began just west of Paris yesterday.

The trial lasted only one morning before it was adjourned, probably until the autumn, at the request of all parties.

It was as if there was simply too much spicy evidence - or alleged evidence - for France's greatest legal minds to savour all at once.

The furore surrounding the trial is unlikely to abate, though. A senior cabinet minister, Eric Woerth, is already fighting for his political life.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has been deeply embarrassed by the implication, in secretly recorded tapes, that he intervened to try to stifle the case.

What began as a mother and daughter spat - admittedly over €1bn (NZ$1.8bn) - threatens to turn into a full-blown "affaire d'Etat".

At the centre of the trial is an unlikely 20-year friendship between two figures from utterly different Parisian worlds. Liliane Bettencourt, 87, is, in theory, France's richest woman and the principal shareholder of the world's largest cosmetics company, L'Oreal.

She has bestowed €1bn in cash, paintings and life insurance policies on Francois-Marie Banier, 63, an overtly gay writer and photographer and turbulent friend of the famous from Salvador Dali to Johnny Depp.

Liliane says that she wanted to repay Francois-Marie for the "treasure of optimism, hope and elegance" that their friendship gave her in her declining years.

Her only child, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, says that Mr Banier and his "clan" have "surrounded" and tricked a mentally enfeebled old woman.

She insists she does not care a hoot about the billion euros. Liliane has already given her, and her two sons, legal title to her 30 per cent share of L'Oreal, worth around €16bn.

Her only motive in bringing the accusation of "abuse of weakness", Francoise says, is her love for her mother and her contempt for Mr Banier.

She is claiming just one euro in damages but hopes that the court will jail Mr Banier and return the €1bn to her mother.

Liliane's celebrity lawyer, George Kiejman, yesterday contemptuously handed Francoise's celebrity lawyer, Olivier Metzner, a cheque for one euro - which he contemptuously refused.

Enter Pascal Bonnefoy, who secretly taped 100 hours of Liliane Bettencourt's conversations with advisers - and with Mr Banier - over 12 months.

Mr Bonnefoy, whose name means "good faith", was for more than a decade Liliane Bettencourt's butler in her mansion close to the Bois de Boulogne in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the wealthiest town in France, just west of Paris proper.

He says he made the tapes, and transferred them to CDs, because he was horrified by Mr Banier's behaviour.

He handed the CDs to Ms Bettencourt's daughter last month, who gave them to the police.

The court decided yesterday that it should adjourn sine die to consider the tapes and whether or not they were admissible. The presiding judge, Isabelle Prevost-Desprez, will personally lead an investigation into the recordings.

Transcripts were partly leaked two weeks ago to a magazine and an investigative website. The contents were explosive.

They revealed that Ms Bettencourt senior had made the photographer her "sole heir" (excluding the €16bn in L'Oreal shares already signed over to her daughter and grandsons). They also revealed that she had a kind of terrified fascination for Mr Banier.

"He is someone I like very much," she says at one stage.

"He is very intelligent, very. But he is killing me... He becomes too demanding. 'Give me this, give me that...'."

The tapes also projected the Bettencourt affair, which has gripped France for two years, into a new, explosively political dimension. The former mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, where both mother and daughter live, is Nicolas Sarkozy.

The transcripts of the tapes suggest that the President, who knows the Bettencourt family well, tried to stop the case ever coming to trial.

They also suggest that the Elysee Palace had promised to use "people we know" within the justice system to have any judgement against Mr Banier reversed on appeal.

Worse still, the tapes revealed that Ms Bettencourt's advisers were hiding part of her fortune from the French tax man, and that Eric Woerth, then budget minister, had asked the billionairess' chief financial adviser to give a job to his accountant wife, Florence.

The CDs also contain much discussion about contributions by Ms Bettencourt to political campaign funds.

Mr Woerth, now employment minister, is also treasurer and chief fund raiser of Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

Uproar has ensued. Ms Bettencourt's taxes are to be audited. Florence Woerth has resigned from her job. Mr Woerth refuses to resign.

The left-wing opposition says that the "corrupt Sarkozy state" has been laid bare.

The president's approval rating fell yesterday to a new low of 26 per cent. And all because of a little family quarrel...

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